Women now outnumber men in the legal profession – but not in the top jobs. Part of the problem is that men continue to define what success looks like, hears Marialuisa Taddia

The low down

The legal profession’s ‘big bang’ saw the number of City firms proliferate and expand, leading to a huge increase in women solicitors finding entry-level positions. Women entrants to the profession soon outnumbered men. But those same law firms were perceived to have failed to retain or progress the careers of their bright new recruits. Attrition remains a problem. Some still complain that when the needs of women solicitors are met this feels like a favour. Yet a growing number of women are in leadership positions in the City and other successful firms. And the remote, flexible-working arrangements of the pandemic have shown firms can work in ways that help women – and men – who have more on their plate than billable hours targets.

This year marks the centenary of the first woman solicitor in England and Wales being admitted to the roll. Carrie Morrison was 34 when she qualified in 1922, three years after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 – permitting women to be admitted and enrolled as solicitors – received royal assent.

Fast-forward 100 years and women lawyers have gone beyond equality on one important measure. In 2021, women accounted for 61% of solicitors and 52% of lawyers in law firms. Yet ‘vertical’, as opposed to ‘horizontal’, equality is yet to be attained. Only 35% of partners are female.

So what are the barriers to equality at the top end? Providing some context is Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support and creator of the First 100 Years (a national campaign, supported by the Law Society, Bar Council and CILEX, charting the journey of women in law since 1919). First, a century is not a very long time, especially given that until the 1970s very few women were qualifying, Denis-Smith argues. The rise of women has coincided with the advance of the global law firm, where more opportunities became available as the practice of law expanded. As more women entered the profession, the lack of women promotions to partner level became ‘visible’, as did awareness of the issue.

‘Previously, many women solicitors worked independently or in small family firms where they were assessed very differently. Global law firms required more travel, more networks and connections to be a “rainmaker”,’ says Denis-Smith. Based on such criteria, women were not considered ‘as valuable to the firms in the first wave of expansion in the 1980s’.

Christina Blacklaws recalls that during her 2018/19 presidency, the Law Society undertook ‘the largest ever global survey and research’ into why – when women had represented most entrants into the profession since 1991 – they were so under-represented in senior positions.  

Additionally, the Society completed more than 250 roundtables in 19 countries, resulting in three insight reports.

Blacklaws says the study revealed ‘systemic bias. Across the world, women were not getting to positions of seniority in spite of ambition, qualifications and experience. In every country, intelligent, able women were being frustrated in their careers due to societal expectations as to what a woman can and should do, and this permeated into the legal profession’. She has continued her work on equality as a member of the IBA Women Lawyers Committee, the editorial board of Legal Women, and as a diversity and inclusion consultant.  

She adds: ‘The main barriers identified in the research were unconscious and conscious bias, how the law is “male-shaped” so that opportunities for business development, getting good clients and promotion were more directed towards men, and the unacceptable work/life balance perceived necessary to progress.’

Christl Hughes MBE, past president of the Leicestershire Law Society, agrees there is a culture of unconscious bias. The perception is that a woman has to be ‘a man in a frock’ or ‘more masculine than the men’ with ‘grit and determination’ to achieve promotion in private practice.

Suzanna Eames, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division, refers to ‘subconsciously held stereotypes’ such as penalising women for being ‘aggressive’ or ‘lacking gravitas. Being blunt, direct or ambitious can be taken as negative, whereas men with these traits are often looked upon positively’.

'Across the world, women were not getting to positions of seniority in spite of ambition, qualifications and experience'

Christina Blacklaws

In 2021, the Society published a review into how the legal services sector has improved since gender pay gap reporting became mandatory in 2017. As Society president I. Stephanie Boyce tells the Gazette: ‘We identified that there have been signs of progress in the last four years, with some workplaces analysing pay gap data in greater detail and planning action to address underlying causes such as the under-representation of women at senior levels.  

‘There’s work still to be done. We urge member firms to analyse the data they hold and engage with employees to better understand the specific causes of why women aren’t progressing to leadership roles and develop actions to change things.’

‘There is a very high attrition rate – around a third of female solicitors leave the profession between five and 10 years after qualifying and do not return,’ Hughes points out. ‘Thus these [women] are not there to apply for the top positions. More research needs to be done on why they depart.’

A possible explanation is that women are more exposed to highly stressful situations than men, suggests Hughes, who has retired from legal practice. Most callers to LawCare, a charity she volunteers with, are women experiencing bullying and sexual harassment, she says.

Boyce says: ‘Following the #MeToo movement, and research by the International Bar Association showing that a third of women legal professionals in western Europe had experienced sexual harassment at some point in their careers, it’s clear that wider changes are needed to workplace cultures in law too.’

For Denis-Smith, the legal profession’s culture is not designed to be inclusive and to value equality. ‘We always look for reasons to exclude, not for qualities that make someone contribute,’ she says. Billable hours targets, the partnership model, and a judiciary built on seniority, she says, ‘all stack up against new entrants – which women are, however much we insist otherwise. We’ve not really had women partners in law firms until the sex discrimination legislation forced firms to accept them by making it illegal not to.’

Nicholas Cheffings, senior counsel at Hogan Lovells in London and a committee member of the Women in Law London (WILL) advisory group, blames ‘the fact that an alpha male perception of what it takes to be a partner is discouraging to many’, and ‘the societal reality that it is rarely men who put careers on hold or step away completely to dedicate themselves to being a primary career carer, for which very few firms have managed to find workable compromises’.

‘The unequal sharing of care responsibilities was evident during lockdown, with women solicitors being more likely to take on extra childcare and home-schooling responsibilities than men,’ says Boyce. A survey by the First 100 Years project found that during the pandemic half of working mothers in the law took on more childcare responsibilities than their partners, and a third were forced to reduce working hours to manage the demands of lockdown life.

While many were supported and welcomed that support, it could also have longer-term implications for their career progression, Boyce adds.    

The overnight switch to remote working demonstrated that organisations had the technology and infrastructures to allow flexible working while remaining profitable. However, Boyce warns: ‘It’s critical to ensure that women don’t suffer as a result of an inadvertent creation of a two-tier system where those who choose to be in the office are given preferential treatment over homeworkers.’

Blacklaws describes this as ‘another type of presenteeism where women, who may have caring responsibilities, opt to work from home more than men and therefore miss out on vital opportunities to progress careers’.

This anachronistic division of roles is reflected within organisations, where it is often women who undertake ‘soft’, ‘non-chargeable’ work such as pro bono or organising events. This detracts from the time they have to do chargeable work, according to Eames. ‘This then reflects in lower billing hours which are used when considering promotions.

‘Firms should properly consider non-chargeable time when [calculating] hours and encourage all staff to participate equally.’ She adds that tasks should be allocated in a non-discriminatory manner and that equal treatment should also apply to part-time working. ‘We can get more women in leadership by encouraging men to work part-time, as we encourage women. This will normalise part-time working and prevent inherent biases working against women who are working part-time.’  

Mehmooda Duke MBE believes there needs to be ‘an openness and willingness to embrace flexible working for all staff, not just women with children’. Duke, the founder of Leicester-based Moosa-Duke Solicitors, says that staff with other responsibilities, such as fathers with children, or employees with sick relatives or even pets, welcome this too.   

‘If this becomes the norm, women will not be made to feel that exceptions are being made for them, and men will not feel that they are accommodating, or that it is an inconvenience which is being worked around,’ says Duke.

‘It helps to recognise that it is not just women who need to work flexibly. Men need to be actively involved in the conversation.’ At her firm flexible working is for staff who request it, whether they have children or not.  

Making the Pledge


Many advances have been made in terms of elevating women into the upper echelons of the law, but not enough. ‘We know more needs to be done, especially to retain and progress women solicitors in the profession,’ says Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce.


Chancery Lane urges members to sign up to its Women in Law Pledge, which commits firms to senior level accountability for progressing gender equality, setting targets for women at senior levels and throughout the organisation, and creating a culture that is inclusive and free from bias.     


Boyce says: ‘Since it was launched in 2019, firms committed to the pledge are putting flexible-working policies in place and setting targets for greater gender balance at senior levels, and creating defined promotion pipelines.’  


Launched in partnership with the Bar Council and CILEX in June 2019, the Women in Law Pledge currently has 42 signatories, including leading firms such as Clifford Chance, Hogan Lovells and Norton Rose Fulbright.


See https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/en/campaigns/women-in-leadership-in-law/tools/the-women-in-law-pledge

Outmoded partnerships  

Kirsten Hewson joined the profession in 1994. ‘It was predominantly a male environment in both law and real estate. Senior women followed a particular profile or had a work persona,’ she recalls.

‘There were very few female role models in leadership positions when I was a trainee. All those in partnership spoke of the necessary sacrifice of family life in particular, so partnership appeared neither attainable nor desirable,’ says Hewson, head of the real estate division in the Solent office of Shoosmiths.   

Is becoming a partner any more desirable today? Financially – yes. According to the Law Society Law Management Section’s latest annual Financial Benchmarking Survey, median net profit per equity partner soared by 39% from £146,417 in 2020 to £203,199 in 2021. The median ‘super-profit’ – the additional share of profits available to partners after their notional remuneration has been allocated for doing their day-to-day job – almost doubled for the year to £102,097.

But in other ways the situation is less clear cut. ‘Ultimately, one can ask whether the current partnership model is the right one,’ says Cheffings. ‘For the most part it is very inflexible. Success is judged almost exclusively by achieving challenging financial targets and successful rainmaking, which has to be done outside the hours which are devoted to achieving those targets. Effectively we are still applying a benchmark for success which was set in a different era by men for men.’

He argues that while ‘we need to maintain that focus because key decisions will always be made at partner level’, this model came into being when men ‘were the sole “breadwinners” and their focus was on maximising the amount of bread they won. Now, many men and women look at what they think it takes to become a partner and simply aren’t interested in making the sacrifices that go with that.’

Firms should adopt a culture where being a leader does not mean being a partner, according to Hughes: ‘Becoming a partner requires both investment in the firm and liability if it all goes wrong. The ability to achieve promotion without that requirement would be an excellent improvement.’  

Luckily the definition of what it means to be a leader is changing. ‘The role of a partner is becoming more flexible, as leaders realise that it is possible to be a partner but also to fit work around home lives,’ says Eames. She points to other leadership roles that are also emerging. For example, her firm Farrer & Co has a separate track of ‘counsel’ and ‘senior counsel’ for those who are experienced in their field but do not want the responsibility or time commitment of being a partner.

But she agrees that the traditional route to partnership is less attractive, although this applies to both men and women. ‘We are seeing a general culture change which should apply across the board,’ Eames says. ‘By assuming that only women find the traditional progression route to be less attractive is inherently playing into the [biases against them].’

Boyce says: ‘Partnership is not the prized position it once was, at least for some. Roundtables with junior lawyers have shown that many find attaining a senior role in-house, rather than in private practice [as more in line] with their overall life aspirations. Less hierarchy and a more flexible path to progression, along with a better work-life balance, present a more attractive career choice.’  

Society statistics show that solicitors employed in-house by organisations ranging from FTSE and private companies to local authorities now make up almost one-quarter of the profession.  

'The role of a partner is becoming more flexible, as leaders realise that it is possible to be a partner but also to fit work around home lives'

Suzanna Eames, JLD

Louise Wilkins is a chartered legal executive and deputy general counsel at global charity Oxfam. ‘The fundamental difference when you are in-house is that you aren’t having to respond to clients,’ she says. ‘There is much less pressure to be constantly available and it is easier to manage your own diary to fit around demands outside work. Part-time working is easier in-house for the same reasons.’

So what is changing? Cheffings says the spate of recent appointments of women to the role of chair and senior partner in big City firms show that barriers can be overcome and that equality of seniority and status is achievable at the individual level. Those appointments also create ‘phenomenal role models’, he says.

At Hogan Lovells, women currently account for 27% of partners globally. The firm’s 30% target has already been met in the US and the UK which account for nearly two-thirds of the global partnership. Women have made up at least 40% of partner promotions globally for each of the last three years. Its three largest offices - Washington DC, London and Paris – have all had recent woman-to-woman leadership changes.   


Suzanna Eames, JLD

Linda Woolley has been joint (since 2004) and then sole managing partner of Kingsley Napley since 2007. ‘When I joined Kingsley Napley in the early 1990s, there was only one female equity partner. Our firm is now 53% female at partner level, one of the highest proportions in the country.’ In the firm’s latest round of partner promotions, three of four were women.

‘Everyone I work with at a senior level is very supportive of creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable to be themselves and succeed as such,’ she says. ‘I have always been a strong proponent of raising awareness and creating policy change around issues women in law face. I am pleased to say these have been widely supported at all levels in our firm by men and women.’

An example of this approach is the firm’s Responsible Business group, which Woolley says ‘works hard to create a safe, inclusive community for women, working parents and carers’. Through this initiative the firm has helped to raise awareness and enact policy changes on menopause and pregnancy loss, in addition to recent internal awareness-raising around fertility issues.

Though tailored to all parents, the policy to support pregnancy loss, for example, is an acknowledgment of an experience that women had in the past felt to be a taboo subject.

Nevertheless, the underscoring principle is to enhance opportunities for all. ‘Policies that equally support men and women often implicitly improve the opportunity for women to progress at a senior level, such as good parental leave policies,’ Woolley adds.

Hewson concurs that policies which recognise topics such as fertility, pregnancy loss, dependant care and menopause are examples of good practice; as is reviewing processes and performance frameworks to make them more ‘inclusive’. Shoosmiths has introduced a ‘balanced scorecard’ as well as a ‘high-performing women programme’ targeted at ‘fixed-share equity partner’ level to identify areas where structural and cultural change may be needed. The firm has also developed a ‘legal director’ role as an alternative to partnership for senior-level progression.  

'Policies that equally support men and women often implicitly improve the opportunity for women to progress at a senior level, such as good parental leave policies'

Linda Woolley, Kingsley Napley

Covid has brought about a growing acceptance of flexible and remote working, and this points the way forward for women. Boyce says: ‘It’s key that this opportunity is built upon. In fact, implementing effective hybrid working was by far the most popular response given in a poll of our Women Lawyers Division members of what’s needed to overcome bias in the profession.’

Law firms across England and Wales are championing gender equality within the profession through a variety of initiatives, she says, highlighting a few examples.

DAC Beachcroft is changing its traditional business model to ‘output not input’ through its Flex Forward initiative and ensuring equality for all, Boyce points out.

Smaller firms are also leading the way. Consilia Legal is offering four-day weeks for all solicitors more than two years qualified. Clarion Solicitors has also implemented returner coaching programmes.

Screenshot 2022-06-23 at 15.39.24

Project Rise is a cross-firm scheme initiated by the Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division. Participants Eversheds Sutherland and Osborne Clarke have committed to offering all successful candidates the opportunity to train on a part-time basis from September 2024.

Boyce says: ‘The project isn’t exclusively designed to benefit disabled trainees. There are many people from diverse backgrounds who would benefit from having the option of completing their training contract part-time, including women.’  

Clients too are piling on the pressure, Boyce adds: ‘In-house lawyers are also uniquely poised to be a powerful and positive driver of change for gender equality through placing importance on diversity and inclusion (D&I) as a significant criterion when selecting firms, as well as requesting gender-equal work allocation, equal representation of women at events and pitches, and leading on mentoring schemes.’   

In January 2019, about 170 general counsel and chief legal officers from top companies called for firms to focus on diversity or face losing income, demonstrating the power to direct millions of pounds to law firms who respect D&I in their offering.

Wilkins says: ‘Many clients of law firms, including in-house lawyers, expect to see diversity at partner level and this will increasingly be a feature in any tender for external advice.’

Furthermore, the in-house sector is increasingly adopting the ‘Mansfield rule’, which requires at least 50% of candidates for 70% of leadership positions to come from under-represented backgrounds, including women, Boyce points out.  

‘This commitment to diversity in conjunction with demanding the same from their law firms will be an attractive selling point to women looking to progress their careers on a level playing field where gender parity is closer on the horizon,’ she says.

Firms are taking the hint. Hogan Lovells, for example, is one of only 12 firms in the UK participating in the pilot Mansfield 1.0 programme for the year to July 2022. The firm says: ‘We adopted the Mansfield Rule to ensure that our candidate pools for senior leadership positions and significant activities [such as] lateral recruiting, pitching to clients, and certain governance activities include significant percentages of diverse lawyers, and there is increased transparency in the roles of senior leaders and how you can attain those positions.’

Denis-Smith acknowledges that ‘there are a lot of initiatives around, but to be honest none have had enough traction for us to really be able to hail it as a successful scheme.

‘The good news is that everyone is aware something must be done so all aspects of the profession are being looked into, from qualifying to promotion. But we are in the early days of seeing what will make a lasting impact.’  


Marialuisa Taddia is a freelance journalist